97 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
If you're like me, you didn't know much about Roger Williams before considering this book. Based solely on his status as the founder of Rhode Island, he hardly seems a titan of Anglo history. But Barry makes a very persuasive case that he stands in a direct intellectual lineage from Sir Edward Coke to Williams to John Locke, and that he deserves mention in the same breath as those two titans of the history of liberty. Williams's contribution was freedom of religion.
Creation of the American Soul is less a biography of Roger Williams (his family is scarcely mentioned) than it is a history that largely parallels Williams's career. The first fifth of the book deals almost exclusively with Coke. Williams took shorthand for Coke, and Coke was surely a major intellectual influence on Williams, but this section of the book is as important for what Coke does as what later influence it may have had on Williams. When King James tried to assert the divine right of kings in England, Coke stood up against him with little behind him but the common law. His efforts can at best be described as a stalemate, but the rights Coke fought for ended up embedded in the American Constitution.
Coke was not the only historical figure Williams rubbed elbows with. Williams was a contemporary of and knew John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Francis Bacon (Barry describes Williams as a protégé of Bacon, but it appears from the text that Williams was merely influenced by Bacon rather than having the kind of personal relationship he had with Coke), Anne Hutchinson, George Fox, John Cotton (grandfather of Cotton Mather), Benedict Arnold (great-grandfather of the traitorous Revolutionary War general), John Donne, and John Milton.
A Puritan minister, Williams was forced to flee England to escape religious persecution. He did not find the freedom he desired in the Massachusetts Bay colony (called "plantations" at the time). Persecuted again, he was again forced to flee. He then founded the colony that became Rhode Island.
A central theme is the tension between authoritarianism and anarchy. The Puritan-run Massachusetts Bay colony veered very heavily to the side of authoritarianism. Rhode Island threatened to dissolve into anarchy. Williams, though, was no anarcho-libertarian. It is a testament to his charisma and temperament that Rhode Island was able to avoid anarchy.
Barry is a talented writer, and his prose reads easily. However, he does have his stylistic quirks. He maintains a strange lack of biographical distance. When Barry states that the Puritan authorities in Massachusetts committed various heinous acts against nonconformists "out of love," he presumably means that was their own stated justification, rather than what he actually believes drove them. He also quotes his subjects heavily, creative 17th century spelling and all. The quotes are all in the same font as the main text, which may be why it appears some Us are printed as Vs (these appear in both the Kindle and hard cover editions).
Barry properly downplays Williams's forward-looking views on the Indians. By the 1800s, his views on religion and politics would have been much less radical relative to his views on Indians. But in his time violent religious intolerance was the rule of the day (dissidents commonly had their ears cut off or worse) and Americans and Europeans had not yet fully developed their nastier racial theories.
Barry explores Williams's legacy in greater length in the afterword (for example, Williams is one of only ten men honored in Geneva's Reformation Wall for their contribution to the Reformation), both rebutting his critics and featuring his proponents. Williams was in many ways the right man at the right time (earlier proponents of freedom of religion did not fare so well), but what he accomplished would not have been possible had he not been such an extraordinary man. Nor should his achievements be viewed lightly because his views did not come from secular roots or because freedom of conscience continued to face challenges in England and colonial America.
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
We Americans are rightly grateful to the geniuses who founded our nation, and set it going with the ideas that there would be no official religion, no religious requirement for public office, and a separation of church and state. Those founders didn't develop those ideas on their own, of course; the philosopher John Locke is often credited with inspiring ideas of religious freedom in Jefferson and Madison. Locke himself was probably influenced in turn by the Puritan Roger Williams, and Williams had a broader idea of religious freedom (he would extend liberty to atheists) than Locke did. Williams got his ideas of religious liberty from his study of human nature and human government, but especially from the Bible; he was a devout Christian minister. Williams believed in the Puritan cause, and felt it was the right way of Christian belief. We say sometimes that colonists came to America for reasons of religious freedom, but while they might have been fleeing religious persecution, they were ready enough in their turn to persecute those of the "wrong" belief. It was Williams who began turning this around, and in _Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty_, historian John M. Barry has not given a biography of Williams as much as he has teased out the religious and political ideas and the events that brought forth the several revolutionary concepts which Williams instilled in his Rhode Island colony and which were to shape the nation when it came into being a hundred years after he died. Anyone interested in the separation of church and state will find this a fascinating story.
Williams left England for New England in 1631. He was banished because he criticized the church, and founded his own settlement which he called Providence. It was the beginning of "the freest society in the world, built around a structure of law, endorsing every man's `peaceable and quiet enjoyment of his lawful right and Libertie.'" When it came to draw up a compact for his settlement, it stipulated that all within would have "libertie of conscience," the freedom to think of God any way they wished. In fact, the compact made no reference to God in any way. This is simply amazing in the context of the times and the beliefs of the compact's author. Williams was no freethinker; he was as pious a Puritan as any, and his letters and writings are profuse in mentions of God, longing for God, and faith. He included scriptural references throughout his writing; religious thought was the way his mind conducted itself. Not only did he restrict government's role in religion, he overturned the philosophy of government. He would endorse neither the divine right of kings nor the Puritan belief that they were building God's kingdom. Governments did not get their authority either from kings or heads of churches, he began to realize; governments got their authority from their citizens and were responsible to those citizens. Indeed, he called for the wall of separation between church and state a century and a half before Jefferson. He called for an end to laws that were supposed to improve the people morally, such as the ones against cards, bowling, shuffleboard, dice, and other activities that other clergy thought "haynously sinfull." Williams knew that government was necessary; he hated the thought of anarchy as much as he did governmental imposition of religious beliefs. He seemed to think of his Rhode Island colony as an experiment; the members might learn ways of government, but they would not be looking for any confirmation of godly purpose. If they succeeded, it would not be because of God's favor; while others would object that God would prosper nations that had proper religious foundations, Williams pointed out all the Catholic and "Turkish" ones that were thriving.
Liberty, in the view of the magistrates of Massachusetts, was the liberty of living a life which the magistrates themselves would recognize as good and godly, and few of their subjects disagreed with this view. The best aspect of Barry's book is its explanation of the growth of Williams's ideas at a time when they were in opposition to the thinking of the masses and the thinking of the leaders. It is true that Williams successfully petitioned Charles II to approve the colony's charter that said, "No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who do not actually disturb the civil peace of our own society." Nonetheless, Williams's books had been burned; members of Parliament said that if England tolerated the religious errors of citizens, God would surely rain down his wrath. We are still trying to sort out how much religion and state may mix, but we are merely doing some fine tuning; Williams did the initial heavy intellectual labor to separate the two. It was an effort of no small heroism, and Barry's book is a brilliant examination of the birth and institution of Williams's ideas.
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Review of Barry Roger Williams and the American soul
I ordered Barry's book immediately after reading the review by Chaplin a month ago (Jan 1). I read it to remind me of my past and to refresh my knowledge of Williams. I too graduated from Brown a few years before Barry and enjoyed my study with Hedges, McLaughlin and Bridenbaugh. I spent a considerable time reviewing the early social and economic history of seventeenth century Rhode Island. My personal family history includes the fact my ancestor left the Bay colony for Providence in 1637, owned the adjoining land to Williams then, and Mrs Scott was influential in convincing Williams of the need for adult or believers baptism.
I found Barry's discussion of Chaplin's review a bit contentious. That Barry discusses at length the qualities of Williams which are essential in how his ideas were used in the ensuing centuries, the book is more about how he developed these ideas. Barry has worked diligently to see how the ideas matured over time through a careful and chronological review of the maturing ideas. It would take a host of intellectual and religious historians to review how Williams ideas were pulled from his tracts and letters and used over the last two centuries. We all read history from our own point of view. So, in reading this the obvious parallels between theocracies, oligarchies, and ethnic killings are clear. Would it not be good were all people to attempt to follow soul liberty.
The early history of Williams relations with Coke and Bacon, his presence as a youth in the Star Chamber and his closeness with those puritans who would later oust him from Massachusetts is essential to understand his later course. The book covers the middle years of Williams thoroughly. This required great effort. Reading the Winthrop papers and the Williams letters and tracts is difficult. Even those included here are hard to read. It would have been easier had he followed Perry Miller in his biography of Williams of 1953 in which the texts were translated into more readable English for those of us today. I did purchase the "Key into the Language of America" in its facsimile edition and remember again now how hard it is to read. Perry Miller has always been a major source in understanding the puritan Calvinist tradition as the theology developed.
Barry recognizes the debt to Edmund Morgan who is one of the more important historians of the period. His book, "Roger Williams the Church and the State" from 1967 and reprinted in 2006 covers most of the concepts in detail. The difference is its size: only 142 pages versus 395 and more importantly organization. Barry works diligently to help see subtle changes in thought through time and approaches the biography in a chronological order.
The last period of Williams life is more briefly reviewed than the early . Perhaps details of the meetings movements and life in the period when he returned alone to work with Cromwell and Milton is not discoverable. Nor is it clear to me why Charles II supported Williams, given his treatment of Vane. By the time of his return to Providence, the land was in use for farming, as Bridenbaugh wrote "Fat Mutton" and times were changed socially. The long legacy of Williams was the preservation of soul liberty certainly here, but it would appear also in England.
I heartily recommend this to all.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2012
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This is a superb work, exhaustively researched and well written. I've read other books by Mr. Barry (Rising Tide and The Great Influenza, both excellent) and this one, in my opinion, is his best. I was looking for a good history on this general subject, a subject that is of particular interest to me as a student of American religious history; with a touch of serendipity this fine book came along.
Mr. Barry writes with that uncommon and pleasing combination of enthusiasm and objectivity, no personal advocacy on the agenda nor the attonement sentimentality that so many writers of history subject us to these days. He writes clearly and factually. Obviously "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul" is the product of skillful and determined scholarship.
As has been mentioned in other reviews, this is not strictly a biography. It is also a widely comprehensive view of the actors and unfoldings of Puritan times, here and in England. Williams, however, takes the leading role in most of the book as he did in many early American religious controversies. His contributions to the liberties of future generations are seldom recognized beyond a paragraph or so in school books. Most Americans, sadly, know little of him at all. Here Mr. Barry gives him his due, and the man he presents, with all his frailities and strengths, is an inspiration.
Whether you are a fourteenth generation American with a lineage to the Puritan days or a recent immigrant with appreciation for your new American freedoms, this Roger Williams is a man you'll be pleased to know.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2012
This book is a thought-provoking study of how Roger Williams produced two of the greatest concepts in history, ideas that reached down through time and became part of the American Constitution. Those concepts were in the belief of the separation of church and state and the tenet of individual freedom. John Barry has produced a work that, although boring and technical in parts, is fascinating and readable.
Barry begins in England by examining two men who greatly influenced Roger Williams. First was the great Edward Coke, Queen Elizabeth's attorney general, and the other was Francis Bacon. Barry painstakingly examines the history of these two men during the reigns of James I and Charles I. I found this section complicated and confusing. I did get this book as part of the Goodreads Giveaway program, so my advanced copy had many errors. This was especially a problem in Chapter 3. It is possible that the published, edited copy clarified the disjointed language.
When the author turned his attention to Roger Williams and the conditions of England during the reign of Charles I, the book takes a fascinating turn. I had never realized the horrendous conditions that the religious lived under. The church of England formed when Henry VIII decided to break away from Rome and the Pope. Many of the traditions and ceremonies from the Catholic church remained in the church of England. The Puritans wanted to purify the church of many Catholic practices. However, Charles I appointed secular men to control what each church practiced and believed. This created difficult times for the Puritans. Using an extensive spy system, Charles' government arrested, punished and put to death many who disagreed with the official decrees.
It was under this oppression that many Puritans decided to settle Massachusetts to create a "City upon a Hill" that would serve God and show the world how God's people should live and behave. However, the Puritans, tolerated no dissent in their colony. Anyone who disagreed with them was punished, banished or sent back to England. Roger Williams arrived in the colony a few years after it was settled and soon was in trouble. He wrote that he believed that the English had no right to take the land from the Indians without paying for it. The Puritans didn't want to hear this. But they were further disturbed by Williams' belief that the secular government in Massachusetts should not interfere with the church. Williams believed that each congregation should have its own autonomy and should not be dictated to by other congregations. He was offered a position at a church in Salem (yes, that Salem!), but the officials of the Colony applied pressure on Salem to renege on the offer. The town of Salem was not give authority to purchase additional lands as long as a church hired Roger Williams. Williams was aghast that a secular issue could be used to control church policy.
Eventually, Roger Williams was banished. He ended up in Rhode Island and tried to set up a colony that provided religious freedom. He fought for many years to get a charter for the colony since the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Plimouth colony and the Connecticut tried to take his land away. They were always trying to interfere with Rhode Island. Williams went to England to get the Charter and got caught up in the turmoil there. He became friends with Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. His thoughts and views for the separation of church and state as well as personal freedom for the individual became known and his thoughts were written down in "The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience." His ideas and thoughts were used by John Locke, who in turn heavily influenced the Founding Fathers in their quest for religious and personal freedom.
I certainly found Roger Williams fascinating. He turned to the New Testament for his beliefs. He studied the Scriptures and determined that many beliefs of those around him did not conform to Christ's teachings. Because the Puritans believed they had the truth and no one else did, they were offended by Williams showing them their beliefs did not conform to Christ's. Roger Williams believed in self-autonomy for each church, adult baptism, and spreading the Gospel to the Indians. I greatly admire his courage and his beliefs. He stood alone much of his life, but his example and teachings have greatly influenced American thoughts.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2012
This is an excellent book about one of the most remarkable men of early colonial America, Roger Williams, who after being bannished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious beliefs, founded what is now Rhode Island, and turned it into a community devoted to religous freedom.
The book serves as a straight forward, chronological biography of Williams, but it also much more. It is a book about the battle of ideas, and conflicting politcal philosophies.
The story starts in London, where Williams was mentored by Edward Coke, the great English jurist who declared "Every Englishman's home is his castle," an idea we accept now, but upon which the King looked with considerable displeasure. Even though I kept wanting the book to move forward to America and the story proper, the sections dealing with the English Civil War and the religous persecution that led the Puritans to flee are among the strongest in the book.
This book did a lot to explain what for me has always been one of the central mysteries of American political development. How did concepts like religous freedom and the seperation of church and state arise from a theocracy like Puritan New England?
The answer, according to this version of events, seems to be Roger Williams. While I sometimes think author John Barry makes too much of the connection between Williams the American Revolutionary leaders, he tells a fascinating, not very well known, story here and makes the case for Williams historical importance.
This is unique book, I really can't think of a recent comparable effort.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A word of caution, you simply must know something about the English political and religious wars of the 17th Century and have an interest in the idea of a secular democratic republic where the people, not the institutions of government, are sovereign. You must also have at least some practical and reasonably accurate way of distinguishing in your own mind between Catholic, Lutheran/Anglican and Calvinist sects. You really must have read Christopher Hill's "Century of Revolution" and Pauline Maier's "Ratification" fully appreciate how spectacular this book is.
I think the point of this book is made in Part VI, "Soul of Liberty." This Part provides the necessary intellectual link that bridges the gap between a medieval state where the institutions of government are sovereign (it really makes no difference if the state is a monarchy, oligarchy or dictatorship - they are all medieval, at best) and a state where the people are sovereign and have delegated to the government certain limited and enumerated powers in a written constitution.
In essence, this is the difference between the republican "anti-Federalist" and institutional Federalists Pauline Maier describes in the debates surrounding the ratification if the Constitution of 1789 in "Ratification (2010)." In my opinion, exactly the same ideas were raised at the Putney Debates of 1647 by the republican/Leveller faction in the New Model Army. I am now thinking that John M Barry has made the case that Roger Williams, the founder of own dear Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, might actually have framed the issues for the republicans in the two most important political debates in the last 400 years.
So, how can a self-described football coach and collage drop out from Louisiana who likes to write about floods and plagues make me believe that he has a through and accurate understanding of the best English and New England theological, legal and political minds of the 16th and 17th century? How can Barry know so much about Coke, Bacon, Calvin, Cotton, Hooker, Laud, Winthrop and the rest? I think he knows them because he knows Roger Williams better than anyone has known him in 350 years. Anyone who has clearly taken the trouble to read and reach an accurate understanding of William's "Bloudy Tenent" (1644) and who can also convey his understanding to a contemporary audience has done something rare and wonderful and important.
If you have any grounding in Calvinism, then you know what a Calvinist "saint" is. Barry demonstrates that Roger Williams was the greatest Calvinist saint that ever lived. As a Calvinist, I fully understand that Calvin, like St, Peter and Martin Luther, was a transitional figure. Barry demonstrates that Roger Williams was certainly a distillation of everything that is best in the Calvinist interpretation of Christianity. [There are one or two key points of Calvinism that Barry omits and that would have made his key points even stronger so I do not think he is actually a Calvinist himself].
Barry has corrected and expanded my own thinking. When I bought the book it was with the hope that Barry might suggest how Williams, who returned to Rhode Island in 1644, was influenced by the republican/Levellers Walwyn, Overton, Lilburn and Rainsborough; people that Christopher Hill, HN Brailsford and Pauline Gregg have told me were the source of modern secular democratic republicanism and so the source of the both the American and French Revolutions of 1776-1793 and, by way of aftershocks, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions of the 20th Century. Barry has led me to the observation that Walwyn, Overton, Lilburn and the rest were most likely were influenced by Williams because their clearest and best republican thoughts were all expressed after Williams published "Bloudy Tenent" in London in 1644. William's publisher was Gregory Dexter, who also published John Milton. This is significant because liberty of conscience and liberty of speech went hand hand in hand in those days and a dissident was really only as good as his or her publishing connections. The publisher owned the printing press and certainly faced torture, mutilation and death for publishing unlicensed material.
This comment has gone on too long and I am still basking in the glow of this work. This book is a modern libertarian, democratic and republican classic. John M. Barry has done something wonderful.
My only negative comment is purely editorial: It would be more accurate if the publishers had decided on the title " Roger Williams and The Creation of the 'Republican' Soul."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2012
Barry portrays Williams in a most favorable light here, a light I strongly agree with, a light he is fairly persuasive about.
Roger Williams was a man from an unimportant family who was born around the beginning of the 17th century. The only folks we remember hearing about from that period are Cromwell, Milton, and John Winthrop of the "city on a hill" fame (no, it was not shining, that is a recent amendment). He knew them all and worked with them and against them. He insisted on the most strict of religions while refusing to be part of any congregation. No, he was not a Baptist, though he was a sort of Baptist, one that no longer matters, for a little while. What he was was a naive troublemaker. He was the Coke's (pronounced Cook, often spelled Cooke) amanuensis for many years. He was kicked out of England. He was kicked out of Massachusetts. He was foolish enough to get along with the native nations. He founded Providence and, because of his very high standards of religious zeal, refused to let the government control or be controlled by religion.
Williams was the kind of guy who makes everyone crazy because he can out-holy the most smug, self-righteous, intolerant religious zealot and then undercut everything any government has ever done for religion by noting that both are corrupt and it would be a really bad idea to let one control or support the other, ever.
I had no expectations about this book, other than a recommendation, but the book appears to have had good use of original materials and an author who knows how to help modern readers understand a period (King James, King Charles, the English Civil War, the Restoration and how it affects New England) that we would never believe had it never happened. The text is quite readable and Barry's narrative makes the story worth following.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2012
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Roger Williams suffered greatly for his conviction that church and state must be totally separated. This scholarly 464 page book is more than mere history and brings Williams to life, with his successes and sufferings. John Barry, a New Orleans resident, addressed our New Orleans Secular Humanist Association providing a taste of what his book encompasses and how our U. S. secular constitution can be traced back to Roger Williams' Providence Rhode Island governance. Books we purchased from Amazon were sold out at that meeting. Church/State separationists will find this book worth reading.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
It is the author's intent to rescue Roger Williams from historical obscurity by making the claim that he was a pioneer in religious freedom, the first proponent of a "wall of separation" between the state and religious institutions, and a believer that the authority of governments derive from citizens, not by divine right. William's life spanned the turbulent English 17th century, where many political disagreements centered on differences between Catholics and Puritans of differing stripes. Of course, there were the antagonizing kings of England, their battles with Parliament, the beheading of Charles I, and the rise of Cromwell.
There are some fundamental concerns about this book. The 17th century was a time of religious fanaticism: Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, Separatists, etc conceded nothing to each other. Various authorities butchered people over what now seem petty differences concerning such issues as predestination, baptism, using a common book of prayers, etc. Make no mistake - Williams too was a Puritan fanatic. He had the luck of falling under the sway of Edward Coke, the prominent jurist of early 17th century England, who attempted to limit the power of the state to dictate all religious particulars, though with very limited success.
The Massachusetts Bay colony was established in 1630 as a godly city on a hill, led by John Winthrop. Deviations from a prescribed godly life were simply unacceptable, and that is where Williams ran into trouble upon his arrival in 1631. He could not tolerate the magistrates telling him when and how to practice his religion. Williams was forced to move several times within the colony, all the while advocating for the state to take a hands-off approach to religion - the influence of Coke now being a practical concern. Actually, it was Williams' insistence that royal colonies were by definition taking land from native Indians that got him banned from the colony in 1635. Over the next nearly fifty years he lived in tiny Providence of Rhode Island.
Williams was disliked, if not feared, by the mainstream Puritans of the Bay, but in all actuality he was no threat. Under his influence, small democratical governments were established in several small towns that are now in Rhode Island. He traveled to England twice to ensure that Rhode Island obtained a royal charter, where he established a relationship with Cromwell.
It is perhaps difficult to accept that Williams is all that the author claims. His influence on religion in the colonies seems to be minimal. His most notable achievements were as a go-between between Indian tribes and the colonies - he was one of a few who could converse with Indians. He was not particularly open-minded about religion, per se. For example, he hated Quakers, though to his credit he did not advocate hanging them, as did Massachusetts. The townships in Rhode Island were so small as to scarcely be an example of how to govern a larger body of diverse people. Outside of Rhode Island, it is doubtful that Williams was particularly influential. The author's claim that Williams played a major role in the creation of the American soul - if that could even be defined - seems like considerable overstatement. The Massachusetts model might be more applicable: one can hardly underestimate societal pressures to conform regardless of the source: state, church, or otherwise.
The book is not biographical. Its focus is on religious and political discord. The first quarter of the book is an interesting look at England under James I and Charles I, as they tightened the screws on non-conforming Puritans. The remainder of the book, focusing on the movements and controversies of Williams, can get a little tedious and repetitious. One suspects that more balanced views of Williams are available.